09/07/2010 12:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

South Carolina's 5th District Race: An Incumbent Fights To Stay In Office

There probably couldn't be a more symbolic street corner in America to describe what's happening in the midterm congressional races than the re-election campaign of U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, a powerful 14-term Democratic incumbent battling a little-known GOP state senator named Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina's 5th District.

On a recent Saturday, just south of Charlotte, the two were campaigning at a folksy downtown festival in the small town of York that literally took place at the intersection of two streets named South Congress and West Liberty.

A deeply entrenched Democrat , Spratt has served in the House since 1983. By contrast, Mulvaney, a libertarian-leaning political newcomer, is benefiting from a conservative liberty movement and a rising Tea Party tide that's crashing at the gates of incumbency nationwide.

A lawyer and land developer, Mulvaney's political career began in 2006 when he won a South Carolina House seat. Two years later he jumped up to the state Senate when an unexpected retirement created a vacancy.

Now he's running for Congress, but only, he's said, because Spratt voted for national health care reform.

"The majority of this district asked for Mr. Spratt not to vote for the health care bill," said Mulvaney spokesman Bryan Partridge, at the festival. "The majority of this district did not want him to vote for the bailouts and that's exactly what this race is about."

According to internal polling from both campaigns the contest is a dead heat.

In the recent past, Spratt has easily dispatched his opposition. There was a close race during the Republican Revolution of 1994 that kind of woke him up, but that was a decade and a half ago.

Known in Washington as a workhorse and a policy wonk with a searing intellect, his prowess for constituent service is unmatched in the state.

But for years now, the mostly rural 5th District has been changing -- and not in the Democratic stalwart's favor.

Covering counties along the North Carolina border and dipping into the heart of the state, the district has become more conservative as thousands of new residents have moved down into the in-district suburban bedroom communities of Charlotte.

In a way, Mulvaney represents much of those changes. Originally from North Carolina, he now lives just across the border.

"If Osama bin Laden ran in this district as a Republican he would get 38 to 40 percent of the vote in any election year," said Spratt's spokesman Wayne Wingate as he walked beside the congressman at the festival. "This is a very Republican district. So you've got that plus this tea party angst against any incumbent in the word right now. It's a very opportunistic time for [Mulvaney] to run."

Winthrop University political scientist and pollster Scott Huffmon, who lives in Spratt's district, expects that across the country Republicans will make huge gains in the House, though he says those pickups will come mostly from open seats.

"Eighty-five to ninety percent of incumbents are still going to get re-elected," Huffmon said in a phone interview. "Is the Spratt-Mulvaney race the one where an incumbent is doomed? Is it one where the incumbent is safe? No. It's the exciting one to watch."

On August 26, the 67-year-old senior member of the Armed Services Committee was shuffling slowly through the crowd in khakis, a blue button up shirt and a tan baseball cap. His hand shakes from the early stages of Parkinson's disease as he sips from a bottle of water.

The people in his district are angrier than he's ever seen them. But unlike many of his Democratic colleagues across the country who found themselves in similar positions and decided to retire instead of fight out the blood sport in November, Spratt is sticking it out.

Thinking about his past opposition, the congressman said they were all better candidates than Mulvaney, but that isn't what's going to matter.

"He's riding, as I like to say, the groundswell on the crest of a long wave," Spratt said, one eye closed tight in the bright sun. "It's not something he's necessarily generating, but he's mounting it and riding it - hopefully [for him] to victory - but we'll see."

What's different this year can be spelled out in one word, said Ralph Norman, a Republican state representative who lost to Spratt four years ago: timing.

"You don't discount an incumbent that's never been beat," Norman said in a phone interview. "But the time is such - I've never seen anything like it. I've been at the tea parties. People are coming out who have never been active before."

Spratt understands he's in the fight of life and said it's difficult to take on wholesale politics with a retail effort. He knows his opponent is tying him to the national Democratic agenda in an area of the country where words like Obama and Pelosi can be pejoratives.

"I'm not running from the ticket," he says.

And so he'll campaign how he knows best. Getting out there and shaking hands. Trying to clear up misunderstandings. Being visible.

"I've been in this office for 28 years," Spratt said. "I've never assumed some sort of persona to get elected that I denounced or ignored when I was finally elected. That's worked. If you can't tell them you're doing something they want you to do, if you at least be straight and be frank with them that's the next best thing."